New Caledonia Referendum: ‘No’ to Independence from France. For Now.

Independence vote a close call . . .

On Sunday, voters in the French overseas territory of New Caledonia cast ballots in a referendum on the territory’s independence, with 53.26 per cent opting to remain in France. It was a close call, and closer than a similar referendum two years ago in which 56.7 per cent of the voting population voted ‘non’ to independence. The territory’s Indigenous Kanak people, which make up about 40 per cent of the population, voted overwhelmingly for independence, and French President Emmanuel Macron voiced his “humility” at the result. New Caledonia is located in the southwest Pacific Ocean a little over 1,000 km east of Australia and has a population of about 270,000.

The long road to independence . . .

After France annexed New Caledonia in 1853, European diseases decimated the Kanak population. Many of those who survived were coerced into slavery or various forms of servitude akin to slavery, either in New Caledonia or abroad. Following the Second World War, New Caledonia became a French overseas territory and French citizenship was extended to all New Caledonians. Social and political agitation and an increasingly well-organized independence movement led to the Nouméa Accord of 1998. The Accord provides for increased political power for the territory and the Kanak population, an independence referendum in 2018, and subsequent referenda in 2020 and 2022 if the result of previous votes is to remain in France. President Macron has stated the third referendum will take place in two years if requested by Nouméa, the capital of New Caledonia.

A second wave of Pacific independence?

While New Caledonia’s referendum was calm, moves for independence elsewhere in the Asia Pacific are less so. Last week, in the latest independence agitation in the Papua region of New Guinea, Indonesian police fired on a student demonstration protesting the extension of a local autonomy law, with the protesters contending that Jakarta is not doing enough to help the local population. Two weeks ago, a former rebel military commander was elected President of Bougainville, an autonomous region of Papua New Guinea. The new President, Ishmael Toroama, is pursuing independence talks with the government in Port Moresby. Late last year, Bougainville voted overwhelmingly for independence.